Longform

Dade's Greatest Hits

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Mary Elizabeth Hotel (1921-1983)
Everybody who was anybody hung out at the Mary Elizabeth, if they were black and passed through Miami during the middle decades of this century. Count Basie and W.E.B. Du Bois slept here; so did Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. Dominating the 600 block of NW Second Avenue, the Mary Elizabeth was the largest, fanciest black hotel in segregated South Florida, one where black musicians would gather to jam after returning from evening gigs at whites-only spots in Miami Beach.

After integration the hotel shut down and eventually was demolished, reducing to dust a large chunk of black Miami's history. But the Mary Elizabeth's fall was only one late chapter in the decades-long demise of Overtown. Known in its heyday as Colored Town, the area was home to workers who toiled for Henry Flagler. According to historian Dorothy Fields, the neighborhood reached a peak population of 40,000 and supported four weekly newspapers, five hotels, a thriving professional class, a tailor, a shoemaker, a dressmaker, and a milliner. Northwest Second Avenue was the nightlife center, earning the nicknames the Great Black Way and Little Broadway. "They made a right out of a wrong," Fields says of the residents' vibrant response to segregation. "They became a self-contained and self-sustaining community."

But the construction of I-95 in the early 1960s sliced through the heart of that community, displacing thousands of its residents. Further condemnation of property to make room for government buildings, new housing developments, and parking lots drove away even more. "Most of the buildings were nondescript as it relates to national standards," comments Fields, "but for us they were functional." Of the few that remain, six sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fields is leading an effort to build a folklife village and lure back artists and professionals.

Gesu School (1926-1984)
Located at 130 NE Second St., the Gesu School was part of the oldest Catholic parish in Dade County and sat within a complex that included a rectory and a church. Sarah Eaton, the City of Miami's historic and environmental preservation officer, calls the school, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places an "excellent example of the Mediterranean-Revival style." Though a developer -- and preservationists -- tried to sell the Archdiocese on the idea of renovating the school into luxury offices, the Archdiocese demolished it in 1984. Says Eaton: "That one hurt because we had a new use for it and someone to develop it." A parking lot now stands on the site.

The Biscaya (1925-1987)
In the Twenties and Thirties, the Biscaya on Miami Beach was a Florida vacation fantasy come true: red-tile roof, ornate loggias in the style of a Mediterranean palace, a grand stairway leading to an elegant high-ceilinged ballroom that featured dancing to big-band music, guest rooms overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. Built in 1925 near the intersection of West Avenue and what is now called the MacArthur Causeway, the ten-story, 242-room structure was one of a string of luxury hotels erected by the famed Carl Fisher.

The Biscaya's glory days came to an end in 1941, when the army converted it into a barracks. After the war, it was run for a time as a retirement home, but by the Eighties it had become an abandoned, crumbling wreck. Owing to its location outside the Art Deco District, the building never received historic designation. City officials eventually declared the vacant structure unsafe and ordered that it be torn down. Preservationists howled in protest. "The Biscaya could be to Miami Beach what the Biltmore now is to Coral Gables A a glorious monument to civic pride," wrote Beth Dunlop, then the Miami Herald's architecture critic. "Restored, the Biscaya could tell the world that Miami Beach, too, is a place proud of its past, an enlightened seaside city. Restored, the Biscaya could be a work of beauty and craftsmanship, bringing Miami Beach esteem and admiration."

Senator Hotel (1939-1988)
The fate of the 42-room Senator, located at 1201 Collins Ave. in the heart of the Art Deco District, became the cornerstone of preservationists' crusade to save Miami Beach's historic landmarks. Famous for its etched-glass windows, portholes, and mermaid frescoes, the building contributed to the architectural style of Collins Avenue, all the more so, says Nancy Liebman, because it was a corner building. "It was a symbol because it was the most beautiful of them," the Miami Beach commissioner says, reeling off other eye-catching corner edifices on Collins: the Tiffany, the Essex, and the Tudor.

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Kirk Semple